The Four Elements of Storytelling

This might arguably be the most important concept to get right about your writing. The four elements of storytelling are an absolute must. They are physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Yes, P.I.E.S. Yum! How well a writer weaves together all four, is the difference between a great and terrible book.

Physical storytelling is the action and plot in your story. These are character descriptions, actions, story events, setting, conflict, resolution, and plot twists and turns. These are essential within every story.

But what is not physical storytelling? I am glad you asked. What is not physical storytelling is what a character is thinking, how they are feeling, goals, dreams, etcetera. I repeat, none of those are part of physical storytelling.

Intellectual storytelling is your characters analytical thoughts. These are character beliefs, understanding of the conflict, personal opinions about other characters (life, love, politics, etcetera), and of course your characters’ viewpoint. Pro tip here, ideally your characters viewpoints will conflict. Tension is everything in creative writing. Intellectual storytelling adds that element of tension because your characters will often have different thoughts and viewpoints, which clash until a resolution at the end. For more on creating characters see my post, Create Captivating Characters.

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Things that are not intellectual storytelling is feelings, fears, what makes a character happy, and what they hope or dream for. Those are all wonderful things, and they have their place. But do not confuse them with intellectual storytelling. Everything has its place. Again, we will talk weaving at the end.

Emotional storytelling. Every writer has a particular strength, and this is my wheelhouse. I love revealing my character’s emotions. But what is emotional storytelling? Again, I am glad you asked. Emotional storytelling is your characters’ inner most feelings, dreams, hopes, how they react emotionally, how a character feels about an event in the story, and how your character will feel about other characters. Through your character’s emotions, your story will make the readers feel something. This is where you will find the pulse in my art. I get hot just writing about it. If you do this right, you can change a reader’s life.

Things that are not emotional storytelling are plot, actions, details of conflict and resolution, any ramifications of the conflict, or what what your character believes about anything. Keep in mind, you already know how to write all of this, it is intuitive. But being able to understand the difference, will allow you authority over your prose. As in, your characters will never run away from you and do their own thing. Which sadly happens all too often.

Spiritual storytelling. I am going to pause here for a second. Many of you might say, how is spiritual not part of intellectual? And I would say, great question. The reason spiritual storytelling has its own place is because every character has a spiritual nature. Now that can mean your character is religious or not religious, but either view is a spiritual viewpoint. Atheist have a spiritual relationship, in that they deny one exists. Muslims have a spiritual relationship, in that they believe their choices have tangible consequences, and etcetera. Spiritual storytelling is simply your characters’ belief system or lack of one. Either perspective is a willful decision by your character. Good characters are human; they are walking contradictions.

Things that are elements of spiritual storytelling is a characters’ belief system (or lack of ), a possible spiritual backstory, and any internally or publicly spoken prayers. If you are writing religious fiction, or from a religious point-of-view, things like a god’s response to your characters actions (usually written in italics), a spiritual conviction, and hints as to why a certain deity is pursuing your character or vice versa.

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Things that are not spiritual storytelling is plot, emotions, dialogue and action, etcetera.

When writing creative fiction or nonfiction, only spiritual storytelling is non-essential. You can still have a great story, leaving out anything of the fantastic (fantasy) or spiritual. But note, spirituality is a very human trait. Some might be religious-like observers of science (that would fall under spiritual). Spiritual storytelling is a great way to connect a character to the reader. But, again, this is the only element of storytelling, that is non-essential.

Weaving all four elements of storytelling is the mark of a good writer. Every page will, in every book, have all four elements together. Now, I have done something really scary; I have provided an excerpt from my own prose. Below you will read all four elements weaved together. Please be kind.

*This is my intellectual property. It cannot be reproduced or copied without my explicit permission.

Excerpt: Anubis, Chapter III

A woman’s voice reported details of another murder. Francis turned up the volume to drown out the heavy metal clinks of transport trucks, cars slicing through puddles, and the cacophonies of horns.  

The victim was found inside a building on the corner of State and Washington Street.

Francis thought he misheard. That would mean someone was found dead in his building. He straightened up in his seat.  

At this time, police are investigating the matter of whom may be suspected for the…

Three minutes later, the report finished. The sun had risen behind storm clouds. The sky was in mourning, grey and weeping. Traffic news followed the special report. Francis turned the radio off and exhaled. Not sure what to think, his mind racing, he decided to call Janet. Ringing emanated through the car.

“I was just about to call you. Where the hell are you?” Francis guessed she knew the news too. That was no surprise to him. Janet would have been at the office an hour by now, or more. She spent long hours combing through decades of financials. Every time he walked past her office, the smell of cigarettes and dusty archives hung in the air. If he popped his head in to say hello, a small peevish woman of fifty would scowl and shrug him off. This had gone on for weeks. Francis hoped she would return to Manchester at any moment. Sometimes he regretted taking on a new partner. But her thoroughness proved profitable. Years of overlooked mistakes were corrected, and he grew richer. Wealth buys patience.

“You have heard the news then?” He heard her inhale a cigarette.

“Have I heard the news? The damn police were here before I was.” She paused to cough. “Cameras and uniforms are everywhere.” Even through the phone he could make out the sound of footsteps and chatter.

“Did the victim work for us?”

“No, thank God. It was some teenage girl, probably one of the cleaner’s kids.” Francis tried hard to place a face on the victim. He regretted not paying more attention to the cleaning staff. Their job was to stay in the shadows, working all night, tasked with making the place look undisturbed. And they were great at their job. He tried to remember the last time he would have met one of their kids.

He recalled the company’s last outing. One Monday a year, always in August, Francis treated all employees and their families to a day on the beach. It had become a company holiday. For years, the office gleefully referred to it as the one happy Monday. His daughter even had a banner made. She was the only teenager he could think of. That day was the last she spoke to him. Thoughts of a yellow dress and her bright smile made his stomach turn. He squeezed the steering wheel. He kept her photo hanging from the rearview mirror, encased in plastic. If only he could return to that ninety-four-degree beach day; he would do everything different. Maybe then Claire would have kept him in her life.

“Francis. Francis, you there?”

“Just trying to figure out if I knew the girl or not.” His stomach began to hurt. Shamed over not knowing the staff better, he chastised himself for being a horrible boss and an awful father. The car inched behind a sea of brake lights. A silhouette of Portland’s skyscrapers painted the horizon. Parallel to him, the blue line screeched and thundered, carrying passengers toward the city. Rain began pouring harder. “Have you seen her?”

“No but you can see for yourself. They haven’t moved the body.” He winced when a violent fit of coughing overtook her.

“Where is it? I mean the body?” He was in sight of his office now. Blue and red flashing lights colored the building’s walls. Police in yellow vests were busy directing traffic around news vans. To get by he had to show a heavy black bearded officer his parking permit.

“Well, Francis, there is something you ought to know.” Janet paused to pull on her cigarette. A moment passed. “The dead girl is in your office.”

W. Alexander | Novel excerpt, Anubis.

As you can see, I still have a ways to go with my craft. But I was brave, and wanted to share my prose with you. One reason, it incorporates all four elements of storytelling. Yes, it flows without you even noticing. And the one thing a writer wants more than anything, is for a general reader to never notice the writing. But writers do notice writing, and I hope you the writer can see the weave.

I would love to hear your thoughts. Especially, if you are a writer or want to be a writer. Please comment and share my blog. I love sharing the things I am learning at Liberty University. And now, more than ever, dealing with family grief, I am in need of some encouragement.

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